Sergio Marchionne, “A visionary in the corporate world” – dies at 66
The automotive world suffered a sad and widely-felt loss in late July, when Sergio Marchionne, a colossus of the industry, died after complications arose from shoulder surgery. He was 66.
Legendary for his bold and outspoken nature, skill in negotiations and shrewd insights into the market, the Italian-Canadian had a varied and extraordinarily successful career. However, his greatest achievement was without question the creation of Fiat Chrysler and his transformation of two failing companies into one of the world’s most successful and fastest-growing automotive groups.
As the world economy faltered during the height of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2009, bringing Chrysler to the verge of collapse, Marchionne opened talks with the US government. A little more than a month after Chrysler filed for bankruptcy that April, he engineered a merger, followed by a wholesale reorganisation of Chrysler’s structure and image, that is credited with turning around the fortunes of the US giant.
Like he had at Fiat, the blunt, brash and often ruthless Marchionne introduced wholesale changes in management, despite numerous acrimonious clashes and departures. Nevertheless, his changes delivered a vigorous revival in sales and profits in the US and abroad, and enabled Chrysler to repay its $6bn federal bailout six years ahead of schedule.
Career of a lifelong “capital junkie”
Marchionne was born on 17th June 1952 in the Abruzzo region of southern Italy, the son of a Carabiniere (military policeman) who had migrated from the Istria region (now part of Croatia) after the Second World War. Like thousands of others, the family crossed the Atlantic for a new life in Canada in the 1960s. The younger Marchionne was 13 when he arrived in Toronto, and despite the difficulties of becoming fluent in another language – a barrier to “trying to get friendly with girls”, he later reminisced – he excelled at his private school and as a philosophy student at the University of Toronto.
It was clear, however, that his future lay in the world of business. After building up an impressive track record in corporate roles at multinationals based in Toronto and Zurich between 1985 and 2000, Marchionne became CEO of the Swiss certification and testing group SGS S.A in 2002. Just a year later, he was elected as an independent member of the board of directors of Fiat S.p.A.
It was at Fiat – where, in 2004, he was appointed CEO – that his name would first become instantly recognisable to anyone involved in the corporate automotive world. Almost solely by force of personality, he became the first person outside the patrician Agnelli family to occupy this position – an even more astonishing feat, given Marchionne’s middle-class emigrant background and his habit of eschewing usual corporate wear for a black jumper and jeans with no tie.
Marchionne, who also held important roles as the CEO of Ferrari and Maserati, was planning to retire in 2019. A host of tributes were made following his death from former colleagues and rivals, as well as the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, whose words on his passing can be found in the headline of this article.
He is survived by his current partner Manuela Battezzato, as well as his ex-wife Orlandina and two sons, Alessio and Tyler.
We’ll leave you with a quote from Ralph Gilles, Head of Design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
“An amazing man who was a legend in our industry, and one I hope business schools all over the world will use as a benchmark to illustrate the art of the possible. He noticed everything, had an incredibly generous dimension and an incredible capacity for knowledge combined with a hard-drive style memory and a spectacular sense of humour. He was simply the kind of man you wanted to make proud, much like a father.”
Sergio Marchionne, 17th June 1952 – July 25th 2018